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Cover Crops — Fall 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Feed your garden soil with a fall planting

By Jodi Torpey

Though your vegetable garden has been harvested, this is no time to let it remain fallow until planting time next spring.

Plant a cover crop now and your garden will reward you next year with richer soil, fewer weeds, and more bountiful crops.

A cover crop is any crop grown primarily to improve soil fertility and protect it from erosion, rather than providing a harvest.

Cover crops can be annuals, biennials, perennials, or legumes that grow quickly and cover the soil's surface.

Others include ryegrass, winter rye, buckwheat, hairy vetch, fodder kale, oilseed radish, and crimson clover.

When plowed under, the cover crop turns into green manure because it increases the amount of organic matter in the soil, conserves soil moisture, and slows erosion. Cover crops also help suppress weeds and reduce insect pests and diseases. Legumes introduce nitrogen back into the soil.

Large-scale farmers primarily employ cover crops, but home gardeners can use some of the same cover cropping techniques in their vegetable garden beds, says Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times.

"The key benefit of cover crops is looser, airy soil with organic matter deposited as much as 3 feet down by the crop roots," he says.

Besides boosting soil fertility, cover crops improve soil structure and give beneficial insects a haven for the winter. Think of it as a protective living blanket for the soil.

Solomon recommends planting a cover crop whenever a vegetable bed at least 100 square feet in size will be vacant for four weeks or longer. Most gardeners sow their cover crop after the fall harvest, allow it to grow before winter sets in, and then till it under in spring.

"The biggest hazard to cover crop manuring is the long wait that is needed for the crop to decompose after turning it in," he says. "This is especially true if the crop has gone forward too far and has gotten woody."

If the crop is allowed to grow for too long, gardeners may need to wait up to five weeks before they can plant in order to give the green manure time to break down into a form that new plant roots can use. One way to avoid the waiting period is to simply pull up the plants, roots and all. The plants can then be recycled by tossing them into the compost bin.

It's important to carefully select a cover crop based on your region, so be sure to check with your county extension office for the recommended plants and planting times for your area.

So, even though you may be ready to put your gardening gear away for the season, take time for one more planting. It'll do your spring garden a world of good.

Jodi Torpey is a master gardener and garden writer in Colorado where improving soil fertility is a never-ending job.